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Study Guide | Literary

Poetry 2017

Introduction
 

WORD.SOUND.POWER.

What does it mean to speak truth to power? When we hear that phrase what do we think?

Shakespeare famously wrote that the artist’s job was to “hold the mirror up to nature.” In America, musicians (such as Bob Dylan or Marvin Gaye) have long held a mirror up to the world, challenging people’s apathy in the face of abuses of power, discrimination, and inequality. American artists like these produced calls to action, urging their listeners to fight injustice and focus attention on the plight of the oppressed. Their lyrics became slogans for national movements at home and around the world, and gave people hope that they could affect change in the world.

The roots of politicized American music lie with blues and folk traditions that largely emerged out of Negro spirituals like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and the work-song tradition of the American frontier. Artists like Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Ma Rainey, Howlin' Wolf, and Muddy Waters helped usher in a tradition of personal narrative expressed through song, and inspired a new generation of American political protest music.

Artists of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s folk tradition—people like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger—challenged social conditions of everyday people in the America. Guthrie and Seeger have been an inspiration to generations of socially engaged musicians, writing songs that deal with real issues affecting society.

During the politically and socially fraught decade of the 1960’s, this kind of music was sorely needed. Among the best known bands and musicians that produced socially conscious music in this decade were the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and the Temptations.

This tradition continued into the 1970s with punk music, and in the late 70s and early 80s with hip-hop. “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in 1982, comes right out of the blues and folk tradition, with the same immediacy as the music of the 60s. Protest music has a deep history in America. So we have to ask: Who are the artists today speaking truth to power?

BAM Education study guides are supported by the Frederick Loewe Foundation.